Category: Art + Design

In the Know: Oil vs Acrylic

There is a definitive allure to paint as an artistic visual medium. Both traditional and contemporary; paint is versatile and complex, a malleable form of art that has a certain approachability to both the artist and the viewer. Paintings have been created throughout the history of visual arts, yet remain timeless in their appeal. To truly understand and appreciate the medium it is important to explore the nuanced differences [and similarities] between types. At the forefront of the medium are, in particular; oil and acrylic. The subtle differences between the two paints may not be immediately apparent; yet are what make each medium independently unique.

O'Malia. "Orbiting the Sun", Oil on Canvas, 60 x 72 in.
O’Malia. “Orbiting the Sun”, Oil on Canvas, 60 x 72 in.

Oil paints have been a traditional staple within the visual art world for quite a lengthy tenure, with the first recorded use in the 15th century. The benefits of oil paint are apparent; because oil paints have an oil base (thus the eponymous label) they are thick in pigment, rich in color and texture, and apply with a slick fluidity.

Kun, "Unravel", Oil on Canvas, 48 x 72 in.
Kun, “Unravel”, Oil on Canvas, 48 x 72 in.

Thick layers and suspended pigments allow oil paintings to have a uniquely vibrant aesthetic. Because of its oil base, the paint requires longer drying time, thus allowing the artist to work with the painting over a prolonged period of time, applying layers that blend seamlessly with prior applications.

Kote, "Moments in Time", 36 x 48 in.
Kote, “Moments in Time”, Acrylic on Canvas, 36 x 48 in.

It can, at times, be difficult to distinguish an acrylic piece from an oil. Often, acrylics  mimic oil in texture, application, and general appearance. Acrylic paintings share aesthetic similarities to oil paintings, yet have distinct look [especially to the trained eye].

Palmer, "Red Barns", Acrylic on Canvas, 36 x 36 in.
Palmer, “Red Barns”, Acrylic on Canvas, 36 x 36 in.

Acrylic paint is the quick-drying younger sister to oil [the medium first came to prevalence in the 1940s]; as such, it can be difficult to blend once applied to the canvas, yet is beneficial in that because it dries so quickly, the artist can be more efficient in applying layers to their work. Acrylic is water soluble, and thus can be applied in very thin or thick layers. Typically, acrylic paintings may appear more “flat” with definitive edges and color separation, whereas oils typically have a more blended palette.

There are clear [visual] similarities to oil and acrylic paintings. The differences between the two can range from subtle to distinct, dependent upon the artist’s treatment of the paint. Whichever the medium, both types provide an effective tool in producing stunning works of art throughout multiple genres.